George Mason Dances Past UConn To Final Four
March 26, 2006
WASHINGTON (AP) - George Mason's players stood on the press table, waving their jerseys to the crowd. Coach Jim Larranaga walked around with the nylon net around his neck.
It won't be the same old schools from the same old conferences at this year's Final Four -- certainly not top-seeded Connecticut.
Buoyed by a partisan crowd and playing some 20 miles from their campus, 11th-seeded George Mason overcame huge disadvantages in size, athleticism and history Sunday to stun the Huskies 86-84 in overtime, ending a stranglehold that big-time programs have enjoyed for 27 years in college basketball's biggest showcase.
Improbable as it may seem, the powers-that-be are going to have to make room for a suburban commuter school from Fairfax, Va., that was a dicey choice to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team.
"I was kidding with one of my assistants," Larranaga said, "We're not just an at-large team, we're an at-extra-large. And if we win today, we're going to be an at-extra-double-large. I can't tell you how much fun I'm having."
The Patriots overcame their deficiencies with heart and tenacity. They were never rattled, even when they trailed by 12 late in the first half and nine early in the second. They hit six straight 3-pointers in the second half, shot 5-for-6 in overtime and outrebounded UConn 37-34 even though the Huskies have three starters taller than any of the Patriots' frontcourt players.
There was also motivation from Larranaga, who fired up his team during timeouts by telling them that UConn's players didn't even know which conference George Mason is in.
"That's a little bit of disrespect," guard Tony Skinn said. "Coach told us the CAA stands for 'Connecticut Assassin Association."'
Of course, as more people are learning, CAA stands for Colonial Athletic Association, a league that has never had a team get this far before. The Patriots (27-7) are only the second double-digit seed to make the Final Four, matching LSU's run, also as an 11th seed, in 1986. They are the first true outsider to crash the quartet since Penn and Indiana State both got there in 1979.
George Mason next plays No. 3 seed Florida in Saturday's semifinals in Indianapolis. This marks the first time since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that no top-seeded team advanced to the Final Four, and the second time in tournament history.
The Patriots' at-large selection was roundly criticized by many, including CBS commentator Billy Packer. George Mason's fans chanted Packer's name in the postgame celebration.
"I think it's been working for us, calling us Cinderella," Skinn said. "We were not supposed to get into the tournament, we got into it. We were not supposed to beat Michigan State and we beat them. Weren't supposed to beat North Carolina and we beat them. We definitely weren't supposed to be UConn. I think we'll stick to the script going into whoever we play. We don't mind being the Cinderella."
All five Mason starters finished in double figures. Jai Lewis had 20, and Lamar Butler and Will Thomas each scored 19. Larranaga's team kept the same five players in the game from the 10:37 mark of regulation to the very end of overtime. Butler was chosen as the most outstanding player of the regional, and he and his father were in tears as they hugged at length on the court after the game.
"I feel so good, through my own sadness, for Jim Larranaga," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "Playing at that level is not easy. I can only imagine the feeling they must have on that campus, in that locker room. ... It's something they probably never imagined. We've imagined it, and we've done it. They could never have imagined it."
George Mason, having by far the best season in school history, had never won an NCAA tournament game until it beat half of last year's Final Four -- Michigan State and No. 3 seed North Carolina -- back-to-back in the first two rounds. Now it can say it has beaten the last two national champions -- Connecticut and North Carolina.
Rudy Gay scored 20, and Jeff Adrien had a career-high 17 points for Connecticut (30-4), which never could put together a complete game in the tournament. The Huskies had to rally from double-digit second-half deficits to beat Albany and Washington and barely held off Kentucky.
"They played tough and have a lot of heart," Gay said. "That's all that really matters when you play a game like this."
Folarin Campbell's tough baseline fadeaway gave the Patriots an 84-80 lead in overtime, and UConn suddenly looked like a rattled underdog from a mid-major. Rashad Anderson tossed up an airball 3-point attempt that could have cut the lead to one, and Adrien missed one of two free throws in the final 30 seconds.
But Mason gave UConn a chance to win with poor free-throw shooting. Lewis missed three attempts in the final 15 seconds -- the last two with 6.1 seconds to go -- giving the Huskies a final possession to tie or win. Denham Brown, who made the reverse layup at the regulation buzzer to send the game to overtime, was off the mark from the left wing with a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Throughout the game, chants of "G-M-U" and "Let's Go Mason!" reverberated off the ceiling of the Verizon Center. Green and gold, as expected, were the dominant colors, and the building reached a new-level din of enthusiasm when Skinn made a 3-pointer to tie the game at 21 in the first half.
UConn started 7-for-10 from the field yet couldn't pull away from the tenacious Patriots, who somehow managed to pull down and chase rebounds despite their height disadvantage. When the Huskies went cold, missing seven straight field goals, George Mason pulled even. The second of back-to-back steals by Skinn led to two free throws by Thomas that put the Patriots ahead 29-28, their only lead of the first half.
But the Huskies responded with a 15-2 run. Their lead was 12 when George Mason got a boost just before halftime -- Campbell's three-point play with less than one second remaining cut the deficit to single digits, 43-34, at the break.
The Patriots pulled within one early in the second half with an 8-0 run. Campbell hit a 3-pointer after a gritty offensive rebound by Thomas, and Skinn made a driving layup despite losing control of the ball and changing hands in mid-air. Then, with 12:31 to play, Campbell hit another 3-pointer that tied the game at 49. The next milestone came with 11:09 remaining, when Butler sank another 3 to give Mason a 52-51 lead.
For the next six minutes, the teams punched and counterpunched, with neither leading by more than two until Skinn's 3-pointer with five minutes to go put Mason ahead 67-63. Marcus Williams' steal and three-point play cut Mason's lead to 71-70 with 47 seconds remaining, and the Patriots went 2-of-5 from the foul line in the final minute to give UConn the chance to send the game to overtime on Brown's buzzer-beating layup.
But Mason didn't wilt in the overtime, making Butler's Final Four prediction come true, a prediction he brashly made when he was recruited to George Mason.
"I think I was joking when I said that," Butler said. "I started dreaming when I got to college. It shows you anything can happen."
(AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)